BUBBLE Comics, Comic Con Russia, and the Country’s Comics Revolution

The nascent Russian comics industry is looking for global reassurance, but can it first change the perception in the motherland?

Breaking through a lull of convention inactivity, a teenage girl with an iPhone in hand approaches the BUBBLE Comics booth and proudly boasts, “I found you guys!

I hit pause on my recorder and allow Artem Gabrelyanov and Roman Kotkov, the 29-year-old figureheads of Russia’s only independent (and consistently publishing) comic house, to meet who I assume is an American fan that discovered their comics by way of the internet. I’m proved wrong when she claims she’s never heard of BUBBLE Comics, but is merely taking a break from her San Diego Comic-Con shopping list to be the middleman in a comic purchase for a friend. She nods towards the iPhone and we politely say hi to her friend who’s waving hello from Thailand via FaceTime.

Sifting through the neat stacks of both English-translated and Russian comics on the table, the girl and the excited face on the phone find the precise title desired from a world away. Currency and pleasantries are exchanged and the girl departs, leaving Gabrelyanov, the CEO and founder of BUBBLE Comics, to pick up his explanation of how he completed a five-year English program within his first year at university. He fails to finish his thought before Kotkov, BUBBLE’s editor-in-chief, leans across the table for an easy jab: “Still, your accent sounds funny.” 

His colleague presses on.

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“I tend to talk with people here with a Russian accent,” says Gabrelyanov before laying on the accent in a comically thicker tone, “come take a look at Russian comics, comrade! 100 percent written and drawn in Russia! When you read our comics you’ll become a communist!” Playing along, Kotkov chimes in, “That’s a joke, of course, but not everyone understands that.”

Since the creation of BUBBLE Comics in 2011, it’s been one milestone after another. They started out with original series’ for the characters Demonslayer, Friar, Major Grom, and Red Fury. After two years they added Meteora and Exlibrium, to bring the total to six monthly titles. They’ve launched a multiverse of projects including board games, trading cards, and an ambitious plan to produce a cinematic universe. It’s product creation at a rapid pace, considering Russia’s budding comics industry is comparatively tiny to the U.S. market. BUBBLE sells around 5,000 copies per single issue, which puts it on par with sales of lower-end DC and Marvel comics and indie publishers in the U.S. DC Universe Rebirth, the top-selling comic of May 2016, sold upwards of 235,000 copies for example. In a country that brushed off comics for decades, BUBBLE saw an opportunity to be a leader in a wide-open field.

“We hopped half-a-century of developing and evolving comics,” Kotkov says. “It was easier for us than for Marvel or DC. The world is fond of superheroes now.”

Even if a second-tier costumed anti-hero like Deadpool is now recognizable worldwide, and the comic fans around the world are hungrier than ever for new, original heroes, BUBBLE is virtually unknown in America. One guy came up to their booth to question whether Russian President Vladimir Putin supported their comics. 

“He said ‘If Putin supports your comics then I want nothing to do with it,’” Gabrelyanov says. “Then he just threw our brochure down. We are not into politics. We’re into interesting stories and characters. ” After a long pause, Kotkov cracks, “Does President Obama support Iron Man or Captain America?” 

Cultural differences aside, most fans that stopped by were receptive to Comic-Con’s newest import. After flying 6,000 miles from Moscow, they posted up in a booth in the San Diego Convention Center, bright-eyed and with little expectation: rookies just happy to make it to the big leagues. They were shocked to find fans seeking out their booth, and taking it to another level; they spotted a few cosplayers dressed as their more popular Russian heroes and even a villain, The Plague Doctor, the bird-masked adversary of Major Grom.

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Such is the current dichotomy of the comic book convention industry. Like many smaller publishers, they could sit behind their booth doodling, hoping that fans already familiar with their comics will seek them out, yet the BUBBLE team opts to put in the hard work on the show floor. They court cigar-chomping Wolverines who scoff at the invitation to thumb through their glossy book, The Art of BUBBLE, an English-translated hardcover aimed to introduce Russia’s costumed heroes to a transatlantic audience. Even when the sales pitch misses, the duo entertains themselves over four days with several variations of vodka and bear jokes to lure in curious comic fans. 

“A few guys who walked around said ‘Oh no, we don’t like Russians,’ and we said ‘OK but we like you!’” recalls Kotkov. Anticipating a playful response, they chose to adorn their booth with a large banner that proclaims the “Russians Are Coming.” They say the Cold War adage is less red scare and more tongue-in-cheek inspiration, but it’s also a testament to the part the company is playing in the booming business of popular culture in Russia.

Every sale is a small reassurance that their heroes do have crossover appeal at a convention that is ground zero for comic book culture. Still, BUBBLE in San Diego is a blip on the radar, a polar bear tucked into the blanket of an arctic snowstorm. Back home, they’re the only game in town. Crossing over the Pacific and onto foreign soil, they channel their enthusiasm for the industry into a rallying cry for the future of Russian comics.

*** 

To understand BUBBLE’s virtually unchallenged rise as an original proprietor of comics, you first have to look back at the history of superheroes in Russia. In describing the state of comic books before and during the Cold War, the news website Russia Behind the Headlines put it: “The official government line was that Soviet people had no need for such a primitive, vulgar, and blatantly American form of entertainment.” 

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Wherever did they get that idea? Was it Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Red Ghost and his Super-Apes racing the good ‘ol USA to space, or the nuclear anxieties of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Cold War-set Watchmen? Maybe it was just Superman as government operative on the brink of World War III in Frank Miller’s influential bestseller, The Dark Knight Returns? 

Even if Cold War tensions thawed in U.S. comics (though they haven’t on the big screen with Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), the influx of Russian-made comic publishers never really manifested. Russian comic book fans instead sustained themselves on U.S. translations and graphic novels that Kotkov says were “half legal.” 

“In the ‘90s, people wanted to eat and not read comics,” Gabrelyanov says. “It was a horrible situation. Businessmen could walk out of their offices and be shot on the street. People don’t think about comics when you should be thinking about saving your life and your family’s life.”   

Yet by the early 2000s, and as life in post-Cold War Russia slowly appeared to stabilize, people started looking at entertainment like movies, books, and comics differently. It opened the door for companies to produce Russian-translated manga and American comics. The occasional Russian comic popped up here and there, but the lack of original Russian superheroes in the traditional American understanding of the industry was noticeable. 

“Before we started, no one wanted to do anything with comics,” Gabrelyanov says. “They thought it was too risky. But after we started the company with four ongoing series, bigger companies thought ‘Hmm, maybe it is really good business after all.’”

Kirill “Uncle Sookh” Sukhov, a former comic book store manager and founder and editor-in-chief of a fanzine about comics in Russia called Big Name Fan: Weekly, says the “superhero” genre is almost non-existent in Russian comics. “The other publishers that tried to do something like that basically failed to gain any fans,” he says. 

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Kotkov’s earliest comics memory is a Soviet magazine called Murzilka that had a “very unusual main character who looked like a fluffy yellow animal wearing a beret and was hanging out with kids.” From kids’ magazines, he grew fond of comic books, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Batman. 

Gabrelyanov grew up on American movies and started to read comics after watching the ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon. “It inspired me and I thought I could make comics too because I had a lot of ideas in my head,” he remembers. He went to university to study film editing but eventually dropped out. He calls his decision to pivot to comics the “biggest day of my life.”

Adds Gabrelyanov: “We didn’t expect it to be so widely popular. Nowadays it’s easier to get attention through the internet and blogs.” In 2015, Bubble became the first Russian publisher to put original English-translated works on the digital comics platform Comixology, and they plan to expand their output of English works and their footprint at upcoming U.S. conventions.

Their digitalization strategy is at the heart of their plan for the globalization of their product, but that’s a story for another day, as Gabrelyanov is eager to showcase the colorful spread of titles laid out before us. Instead of talking shop about his plan for Demonslayer to become an iconic international hero, the young CEO lights up like a kid as he flips through the issue, explaining how it captures the “Russian spirit,” as well as the challenges of translating it for an English audience.  

One major issue in translation is finding analogues for Russian idioms and common phrases in the English language. “There is a tradition amongst Russian Airborne Forces to break a glass bottle with your own head while yelling ‘For the Airborne Forces,’” Gabrelyanov says. “Demonslayer, an honored Airborne member, uses that phrase ironically while breaking a bottle on the demon’s head. We didn’t get a chance to tell our English readers about this Russian tradition, so we went with the closest analogue – ‘Airborne All the Way!’ Not exactly the same effect, but close enough.”

Careful to point out specific features of the illustration, he says that none of their superheroes have superpowers like flying or shooting beams from their eyes.

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“It’s a part of the Russian mentality that Russians don’t believe some men can fly or acid has been spilled in someone’s eyes and he gets super powers,” Gabrelyanov says. “They won’t believe it now because they know about radiation, and they won’t buy it. They just believe in a person that gets his job done. That person can be really effective.”

Public response to BUBBLE has been contentious at times. Before breaking through with the Exlibrium series that silenced most of its critics, Sukhov says the company struggled to combat online vitriol and trolls.

“Even I gave them a hard time for some of their rather disappointing books,” says Sukhov. “Overall, their quality went up and they’re still the most professional publisher when it comes to Russian-made comics.” 

BUBBLE, at least for now, is a candidate that runs unopposed. A DC Comics without a Marvel counterpart. 

“Hopefully their success might get them an equally professional competitor and that way the overall industry will benefit from a conflict that forces both sides to step up their game,” Sukhov says.

***

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After failing to produce a lighter for his cigarette, I find myself in conversation with Max Maslov, a towering presence with a soft Russian accent who is leaning up against the railing of the terrace deck of San Diego’s Bayfront Hilton. Two days before San Diego Comic-Con, the swanky waterfront spot adjacent to the convention center is light on patrons while the sound of hammers and last minute preparations drown out whoever’s Spotify is plugged into the speakers. Maslov, 36, introduces himself as the general manager of Comic Con Russia, the largest comic convention in the country, held in Moscow’s Crocus Convention Center. 

Naturally, the question of comparison comes up and Maslov is quick to distance the size of his show from the experience put on by comic cons in San Diego or New York despite the fact that they’d go on to bring in 162,000 visitors to Moscow over four days in 2015, more than any U.S. comic convention. The one caveat to the massive attendance figures: Comic Con Russia was built into the already existing IgroMir Expo, the country’s largest computer and video game convention, meaning for the price of one ticket, you have access to both shows in the convention space.

Pointing out the ongoing work on the parking lots, open grassy areas, and sidewalks surrounding the hotel and convention center, Maslov acknowledges the cohesiveness of the industries that come together to make San Diego Comic-Con an event that can essentially shut down a city for a week. 

“The ultimate goal [for Comic Con Russia] is to hopefully, in the near future, invite people to an experience that is similar to San Diego where you can come to a small city and you will see the city living on the laws of pop culture,” Maslov says about his aspirations.  

Attendance may be outpacing American cons, but Comic Con Russia still has a long way to go before it can stand on its own. For starters, they’re still scaling the event for mainstream comic enthusiasts, who are only recently embracing the medium. KomMissia, Moscow’s festival of comics, graphic novels, and manga has been around since 2001, but Maslov saw an opportunity to create a show experience that would pull in a general audience, not just diehard comic fans. Plans were laid out for a major Comic Con in Moscow before they were ultimately shelved around 2008 due to what’s now called the Great Recession of Russia. Not to be deterred by sinking oil prices, political unrest, and the threat of war with neighboring countries, the idea for a major convention resurfaced after the economy rebounded and Russian pop culture enthusiasts had the disposable income to spend at shows. 

Even with an improved economy, comics alone couldn’t sustain a show the size that Maslov wanted to pull off. A self-proclaimed video game guy, his team decided the best way to scale Comic Con Russia was to grow it alongside the IgroMir Expo. 

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Recalls Maslov, “We had the resources from the big video games exhibition and we could spend more [money] to invite people to come.”

Maslov expressed concern that his biggest challenge in improving the convention was attracting top-flight celebrity talent to fly all the way to Moscow. His hope was that he’d make connections in San Diego that could lead to a stronger lineup. 

During the show’s first year in 2014, they managed to host Supernatural actor Misha Collins and David Lloyd, an artist who worked on the seminal graphic novel V for Vendetta. With one Comic Con under their belt, they upped their game to attract Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones), Summer Glau (Firefly), Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica), Anthony Daniels (Star Wars), cartoonist Trina Robbins, and former Marvel editor Jim Salicrup in 2015. 

Maslov says they tripled their talent budget from year one to year two. They’ll continue to package IgroMir Expo and Comic Con Russia as dual admission for the price of one, in the hope that it will allow flexibility to bring major pop culture icons to Russia in the coming years. 

“It was the right decision,” Maslov says of keeping the cons as one entity. “We are not in the situation in Russia where you can afford to do the separate events, and to do it on a big scale unfortunately. We want to naturally expand.”

When it comes to attracting talent or brands, Maslov points to the quality of the overall event as the deciding factor.

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“The overall scale of the event is much more important than the size of Comic Con Russia or IgroMir separately,” he says. “Of course for any talent it’s much better to come to an established and big event rather than coming to a small convention. I don’t remember anyone, including agents, asking us if there’s big video games taking part in the event or not. The scale of the whole event, stage quality, fans, that’s what really matters.”

Having the conventions in the same building is key to sustaining business for now, but it’s a major win for Russia’s nascent comics industry when thousands of fans can wander into the exhibition halls that house translated books from DC, Marvel, and Russia’s own, BUBBLE. Add the emergence of Russia as a both home base and destination for the world’s best cosplayers (Team Russia won the 2014 World Cosplay Summit Championship in Nagoya, Japan), and the snowball effect is a more cohesive pop culture community.

Nataliya Naboyshchikova, 22, goes by the online cosplay profile name Songbird. She is also active in the European cosplay scene, often attending conventions and participating in photo shoots. The London-born Moscow native is a gamer, and was first inspired to take up the hobby when she played as the character Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite. She found people to help create a costume and attended the IgroMir Expo in 2014, which coincided with the birth of Comic Con Russia. After returning to the convention in 2015, she says the dual conventions are a chance for those interested solely in cosplay or video games to experience the full scope of what the Russian pop culture scene has to offer.

“At Comic Con in St. Petersburg, they turned it into more game stuff, so I think it’s maybe within several years comics will manage to become a separate [con], she says. “But I don’t see it now. I think that if you want to create a Comic Con, you will still see it connected to games.”

Maslov did notice that cosplay in San Diego was more abundant amongst hardcore and casual fans. It’s Mardi Gras for nerds after all, and everyone is encouraged to dress up. At his show, the overwhelming majority of people who arrive in costume are professional cosplayers – and that’s something he wishes to change moving forward. As for whether comic books and cosplay are intertwined in Russia, Naboyshchikova still sees it as just the beginning of its evolution. 

Maslov did notice that cosplay in San Diego was more abundant amongst hardcore and casual fans. It’s Mardi Gras for nerds after all, and everyone is encouraged to dress up. At his show, the overwhelming majority of people who arrive in costume are professional cosplayers – and that’s something he wishes to change moving forward. As for whether comic books and cosplay are intertwined in Russia, Naboyshchikova still sees it as just the beginning of its evolution. 

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“I’m not that much of a fan of comics to be honest,” Naboyshchikova confesses. “I’m more interested in games, but I know girls who are working with BUBBLE and working with this geek community. When I saw the last book that [BUBBLE] presented, I finally thought that maybe I should have a look at it. I’m now getting into comics. I also get presents from my friends who presented me with comic books and I was like ‘Yeah okay I will read them. Why not?’ People are really proud that we have our first publishers of comics in Russia.”

The popularity of cosplay in Russia presented an opportunity for BUBBLE to engage new fans. When they started producing comics and attending shows, they paid professional cosplayers to dress up as their characters. “Cosplayers in Russia simply love their job and do their best to become one with the character and so they attract a lot of people acting like comic book heroes and telling them about BUBBLE comics,” says Kotkov. As the fan base grew, they decided they no longer needed to pay cosplayers. Now, people who have costumes of their heroes seek them out to help with their convention activities. 

“Everyone watches superhero movies but very few people read actual comics,” Kotkov says. “So the combined might of video game, comic book, movie, and cosplay power brings together more people so that every company could be happy.”

Undoubtedly on separate missions while in San Diego, one of fact-finding as opposed to raising brand awareness, Maslov pegged BUBBLE’s Gabrelyanov and Kotkov as the rising stars of an industry that was overlooked in the country for far too long and a key element of the uniquely Russian experience he’s attempting to develop in Moscow. 

“I think the most important thing that BUBBLE does for us right now is they are showing everybody in the country that a comics company can be a mature business, which can be expanded not only to comics, but also to movies, books, shows, and so on,” Maslov says, while considering BUBBLE’s involvement in Comic Con Russia’s first two installments. “It’s a fun business, but it is a business.”

***

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The future of Russia’s comic industry could very well look like this: A move out of Moscow to a smaller city where Comic Con Russia escapes the confines of a convention center and spreads out into the cityscape. The convention floor is not only filled with professional cosplayers extravagantly honoring their favorite characters across all mediums, but a general audience purchasing Superman capes and Iron Man masks. For BUBBLE Comics, imagine a Hall H-type reveal of their latest film title and premise, the beginning of their own cinematic Phase 2 or Phase 3. Though let’s face it, by the time this hypothetical future rolls around, BUBBLE could be several dozen feature film phases behind Marvel.

The dream is a lofty one for now. Nearly a year removed from his excursion to San Diego, Maslov says the limitations of hosting Comic Con in Moscow are preventing him from implementing any immediate changes to his event based on his SDCC observations.

“The way we are right now, we can not do the same stuff that people are doing in San Diego in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or any big city in Russia,” Maslov admits. “The biggest problem we have right now is the price for the venue.” After speaking with convention organizers across the U.S., he gathered that the government-owned convention centers are three or four times less than he is paying for private Moscow venues of comparable sizes. 

Still, watching the excitement of crowds funneling into San Diego’s Gaslamp District after a long day on the convention floor gives him a chance to reassess the reason he pursued Comic Con Russia as a major worldwide destination in the first place. 

“I like uniting people,” he says, “the idea was to share the great experience with all the people doing something unique, and you could not feel it anywhere else.”

On a Skype call shortly after Comic Con Russia 2015, Gabrelyanov and Kotkov made no pretense of mincing words, “We rocked the house,” they emphatically stated, following their announcements of two new series, a video game, an app that will allow you to read their comics online, and the creation of a movie studio (with the debut of a high-quality trailer). 

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“It’s been a few years since we started making comics, I think everyone would be disappointed if we didn’t announce something like this,” Gabrelyanov says.

Not everyone went nuts for the announcements. Gabrelyanov admits some fans and media were unenthusiastic about the company’s decision to use the Marvel CMU as a model. “For them it’s just another movie,” he says, “For Russia’s comic industry it’s the first [adaptation] of a comic book in their lifetime. It’s a small step for cinema studio production but a big step for the geek industry in Russia.” 

The BUBBLE guys want to keep creative control of their heroes. They passed up offers by outside companies to produce films based on their characters. 

“I don’t want it to be like Marvel and they sold all of those rights to Fox and Sony and now they can’t get them back,” Gabrelyanov says. “I want to keep them to myself. It’s easier now to find money for this project than years ago.”

Coming off a Kickstarter campaign this spring that raised over $24,000 on a $10,000 goal to publish an American adaptation of their Exlibrium series, “Russians Have Landed” might be an appropriate slogan upgrade at their next U.S. convention visit. They’ll be back in San Diego this year to host a panel, and continue to fight the good fight, changing the perception of Russian comics one vodka and bear joke at a time.

Back at home, they’re taking an active role in promoting Russian comics, launching a program for the newly opened comic book shops in Russia—every store gets a box of comics for a lowered price—and attending smaller shows in the far corners of Russia.

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“There are conventions almost everywhere in Russia now as more and more comic book shops open every week,” Kotkov says. “This may be a common thing for the USA, but a few years ago nobody would even think about this happening in our country.”

Author’s note: Special thanks to Michael Barile and Steve Givarz for their contributions to the story. Photo credit: Fotoezh. Cosplay photo courtesy of Kira Mitenkova. Illustration by Sophie Erb.

A version of this story appeared in Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic-Con Special Edition magazine. To read the full digital edition, click below.